Before we had kids, my husband and I confidently agreed our motto would be "have kids, will travel." When our son was born, we hit the open road and flew the friendly skies with confidence. When our daughter was born, we carried on—and carried a lot more to accommodate our two tiny tykes. Then we had triplets and our travel moxie was put to the test. Could we really still travel with five kids under the age of five? Sure we could and indeed we did. Whether your family is big or small, here is some advice to ensure that your next check-in doesn't leave you wanting to check out!
Remember that many hotels are built for business travelers, not baby travelers so, if you're bringing a little one along, consider bringing some of the baby-proofing "comforts" of home with you. Little things like outlet covers won't take up much space in your bag and will give you peace of mind as your crawler explores his new surroundings. For bigger kids, remind them that home rules apply for hotels too—don't open the door to strangers; don't leave the door open or unlocked; and as a reminder to you, don't leave the kids "home alone." As tempting as it may be to let the monitor be the babysitter, in the event of an emergency, it may be hard to return to your room and you never know when housekeeping (or anyone else) could come a'knockin'. When it comes to "kids clubs," remember your ABCs: Ask about Allergies, Background checks and "Checkpoint Charlie"—you should know what the visitation policy is for parents; the ratio of caretakers to children and who's watching the door, pool, etc., to ensure that your little one won't wander off for some sight-seeing of his own.
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
From high-end resorts like the Montage to the more affordable Residence Inn by Marriott, many goodies are there for the taking as long as you're not afraid to ask. Eager to please even the smallest of travelers, many hotels offer stuffed animals, coloring books, crayons, rubber ducks for tub time, and more. Some also have game rooms or libraries stocked with board games, video games, puzzles and books you can borrow during your stay. Forgot to pack pool toys? Ask for those too. If the hotel doesn't offer them as a giveaway or for complimentary use at the pool, there's a good chance someone else has left them behind and you can reap the rewards. If you're traveling with a baby on board, the Westin even offers Diaper Genies, bottle warmers, and booster seats. But remember, you don't get what you don't ask for!
BE SPECIFIC WHEN MAKING YOUR RESERVATION
If you need a crib, ask for it before you arrive, not when you're checking in. If you need a mini-fridge to keep the morning milk cold, confirm it ahead of time. You should also ask about the maximum occupancy of the room you reserved; most hotels have a limit and it's best to know what it is ahead of time—especially if, like me, you hope to squeeze your entire brood into one room. While you're at it, consider requesting a room with a kid-friendly layout—an alcove, walk-in closet, or even a large bathroom can accommodate a crib or Pack & Play so you don't find yourself reading or eating in the dark after putting the little ones to bed.
JOIN—AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF—LOYALTY PROGRAMS
From Hyatt to Starwood, there are numerous perks programs just waiting for you to join. Membership is free, points are earned over time, discounts are often available, and, as they say, membership has its rewards. According to a Hilton Worldwide spokesperson, "With Hilton HHonors, the more often members stay, the higher the status they'll achieve and the more perks they'll have access to whether traveling for business or leisure—including but not limited to space-available upgrades to a preferred room or suite; the option to choose from a host of MyWay benefits like one in-room movie per stay to entertain the kids, or a selection of free beverages, sweet treats, and salty snacks. We even offer late or express checkout to make packing up the family simpler." Sign up is quick and easy and with apps like CardStar or AwardWallet to help track your membership numbers, status and passwords, there's no reason not to just do it!
ALL YOU CAN EAT
Well, it may not be all you can eat and frankly, it would be a shame not to get out of the hotel to enjoy the local fare, but you can and should take advantage of any freebies that are offered. Breakfast is included at most family-friendly hotels, including Country Inn & Suites, Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn Express, and Spring Hill Suites. The Doubletree is famous for warm chocolate-chip cookies at check-in and a spokesperson confirmed that if you ask nicely, they will even give you two. Many hotels let kids eat free (something they regret when they see our clan of five approaching!) and some even include weeknight dinners in your daily rate. We lucked out on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., when it was Taco Night at the Residence Inn; free tacos make for happy travelers, both tall and small! The Holiday Inn lets up to four kids 12 and under eat free at their on-site restaurants with a paying adult and if you book the Experiences by Marriot package, breakfast, lunch and dinner is included; in their words "we'll take care of feeding them and you can worry about what you want to eat." Be sure to read the fine print though; "kids eat free" has its limitations and poolside dining and room service typically top the list.
PLAN YOUR MEALS
If freebies aren't included or Taco Night just isn't your thing, you may be tempted to order room service. And you should, just once. The thrill of it for the kids (and ease of it for you!) is worth the expense, but for most of us, it's a one-hit wonder. To ensure you don't blow your sightseeing budget on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, consider choosing a hotel with an en suite kitchen, like Residence Inn or Homewood Suites. It's easy to pack a few basics like cereal, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, and mac & cheese or, better yet, pick them up en route to the hotel or in the lobby "pantry"; the Hilton Garden Inn has a "Pavilion Pantry retail market offering a selection of microwaveable packaged, refrigerated and frozen food items and an assortment of beverages, snacks and sundries." Since you'll want to eat out a few nights, be sure to research family-friendly local joints before stomachs start to growl—or put the concierge to work and let her take care of the details.
PACK WISELY, BUT DON'T PACK IT ALL
While we'd all like to take a break from laundry, it pays to pack light and do a load on the road—especially when you consider the high cost of checking bags and limited real estate in rental cars. Find out what your laundry options are before you go. Does your hotel offer laundry service? Is it worth paying a premium for? If not, ask about a laundry room (many of the suite hotels, including the Hilton Garden Inn and Home2Suites, have them) or proximity to a local laundromat or wash & fold service so that you'll be prepared when Junior wets his pants or your princess tosses her cookies. A word of caution though, courtesy of Jamie Pearson, the well-traveled blogger behind Travel Savvy Mom, "If you decide to bring a Ziploc bag of laundry detergent with you, label it with a Sharpie and put it in your checked baggage. On the whole, TSA agents tend to take a dim view of baggies full of white powder."
BE AWARE OF HIDDEN COSTS
Nothing mars a memory more quickly than sticker shock at checkout. Ask in advance about fees for parking, exceeding double occupancy, rollaway beds, cribs, and any other surprises that might come up. Also note that "all-inclusive" resorts may not be; while meals are typically included, many resort activities like water sports, kid camps, and those cute umbrella drinks that are oh-so-tempting may come with a hefty price tag. Last but not least, keep the kids out of the mini-fridge and away from the snack bar. While it was fun to watch Chevy Chase charge it to the Underwood's in Fletch, it's not nearly as amusing when the victim is you and the hoodlums are your own!
Annual membership fees for the Automobile Association of America range from $58 for a basic membership to $129 for the premiere package. All members receive "great deals at major chains such as Best Western, Clarion, Doubletree Hotels, Embassy Suites, Hampton, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Quality or Sleep Inn, and more." Other perks? Travel guides, entertainment discounts and, of course, the rapid-response roadside assistance they are known for. If you'll need a car seat at your destination, joining AAA automatically enrolls you in the Hertz Gold Plus program, which will give you one car seat for free when you rent from Hertz.
DON'T SKIP "DATE NIGHT"!
Let's be honest, it's hard to keep the flame alive when you and your partner are sharing the room with your offspring, but that doesn't mean it has to fizzle out completely. If you're heading to a warm weather destination, request a room with a terrace or patio and order room service after the kids are tucked in; dining al fresco is like going on a date without leaving your room. If you'd prefer to stay inside, dim the lights as the little ones snooze and tuck in for a movie or perhaps even a bubble bath—sans rubber duckie. Sometimes romance is as simple as a tub you didn't have to clean... Now that's a vacation!